AN INTERVIEW WITH AMANDA COPLIN: THE ORCHARDIST
With prose that flows like a honeyed river, and a story that mesmerizes the reader from page one, it’s no wonder that Amanda Coplin’s stunning debut novel, The Orchardist, was snatched up by HarperCollins as soon as they heard about it. Distinctive in its narrative and setting, this book is intelligent, strangely elegant and seductively drawn.
MaryAnne Kolton: Please tell us a little about your childhood: home life, family, favorite books, and who first encouraged you to read.
Amanda Coplin: I was born in Wenatchee, Washington in 1981. My parents divorced when I was four years old; around this same time my grandmother married a man named Dwayne Sanders, an orchardist who lived just outside of Wenatchee, in a small community called Monitor. I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ place, which was surrounded by orchards. My grandfather, who had been a bachelor until he married my grandmother, tended his own acreage as well as that of his mother, which he and his brothers tended together. I drew to my grandfather immediately because of his kindness, quietness, patience, and humor. He and I forged a special bond.
I was struck also at that time by the beauty of the surrounding orchards, which I now visited regularly. My grandparents let me and my brother and cousins roam freely, and I often did so with a book in hand, spending long hours lounging in the sun-warmed grass.
It was my mother who taught me to read. Every night before I went to bed, she would read to me. There was a special rocking chair we would sit in, and the room would be dark except for the lamp behind the chair, which illuminated the page. I think that atmosphere was important: the lamplight, my mother’s voice. We read The Little House on the Prairie series, and Beatrix Potter, and the Serendipity books.
When I began to write, as a child, my mother was my first audience. I remember writing a story about a teddy bear that travels to outer space. My mother took the manuscript to the copy shop and laminated it and bound it. She has always been my most enthusiastic supporter. That has not changed at all.
MAK: In an interview with the Seattle Times you said: “In middle and high school, in the Ridgefield (Clark County) School District, I had really great teachers who took me aside and said, 'If you want extra help, I can help.' At my high-school graduation, my English teacher, Mrs. Falk, said, 'I know I’ll be reading your novel one day.'"
Your mother and your teachers, all encouraging you and cheering you on. How wonderful is that? A literary child prodigy. Did you actually know that early on that writing was to be your career, your passion? Have you ever once thought of pursuing anything else?
AC: I think, when I was very young, I told my mother I wanted to be a pediatrician. But I think I might have only admired that word—pediatrician—for how it sounded, and how it looked written down on the page.
I have always been sensitive to the desire to get something down just right, to generate emotion by arranging particular words in particular order. I think it comes from a childish desire to please one’s parents and family and teachers—I have always been a people pleaser—but now, as an adult, I write to please myself. Of course there is the accompanying knowledge that in following my own vision others will participate in it and hopefully benefit by it. It is so wonderful, so satisfying to state something correctly: I think I sensed this even as a child, and knew I would never find true happiness outside of it.
MAK: The first two pages in your novel The Orchardist are an almost perfect example of detailed character description. Talmadge comes fully alive on those pages. Through your words we begin to know what he looks like, how he views the world his values. We feel his loneliness . We perceive his trustworthiness and kind nature. If he is based on your grandfather, in what ways are the two men different?
AC: I know Talmadge a lot better than I ever knew my grandfather, who died when I was thirteen. I have a child’s recollection of my grandfather, which is highly skewed. To me he was perfect, a king among men; and while I still believe he was a king among men, I also understand now, as an adult, that he must have had his fair share of imperfections. The problem is that I’m unsure what these character complexities were, exactly, which keeps me from knowing him fully. I cannot speak of him, I cannot evaluate him, in the way I can with Talmadge, whom I know intimately.
MAK: All of the females in The Orchardist are drawn as women of formidable strength – yet all have a shadow of immense vulnerability. Will you talk about them a bit?
AC: There are three main female characters in the novel who we follow throughout: Caroline Middey, Della, and Angelene. Caroline Middey is a midwife and herbalist who has lived in the region for most of her life: she is quiet, ruminative, and harsh in her judgments. She often tells Talmadge what to do, and he appreciate what she has to say, but he doesn’t listen to her, and this largely leads to his demise. There is this sense with Caroline Middey that even though she comes off as being resolute and harsh, though fair, she immediately second guesses herself when she tells Talmadge to stay away from Della, for example. Even though she dispenses advice seemingly without qualm, she is regretful. What if? she is always wondering. What if we are better off doing the thing that our heart tells us to do, instead of our heads—is that better? When she is alone, working in her garden, we see this indecision, and finally this is what characterizes her. To the world she is a staunch old woman telling her friend what to do with his life, but as readers, who see this indecision, we see her as confused, vulnerable, and lonely.
With Della, too, we see the side of her that the outside world cannot see. To outsiders she is the epitome of recklessness and toughness, almost blind to physical danger. As readers we understand the source of this recklessness, which is despair: she does not know who she is, or where she is going. She cannot see the shape of her life, and so she tries to outrun it, somehow. As readers we witness this, and hopefully suffer for it.
Angelene, the third female character we really get to know in the novel, is outwardly the least abrasive of the three. I see her as shy, but gently stoic. Inwardly, she is strong: she has known love and companionship, she has a great sense of self. She is more openly vulnerable, which affords her a gentleness and depth, a lack of defensiveness, which is missing from the other two characters.
MAK: Would you agree that the reader might be struck by a slight sense of magical realism wafting about the places and people in your novel?
AC: Magical realism is stretching it a bit, I think, but I’m intrigued by your observation. I certainly feel that I was interested in spinning something mythic about the orchard and about the pattern of peoples’ lives—that each character was living his or her own unique experience but was also shadowing or complementing, or even extending, others’ experiences in the novel. I guess this is part of my vision as a writer, to understand and depict how the characters are all connected. And this has to do with the place as well: to show how each characters if formed by the landscape, and vice-versa: that relationship is of ultimate importance.
MAK: Your work has been compared to that of Marilynne Robinson, John Steinbeck and Toni Morrison, among others. You have said:
“There’s something powerful that happens when you read about the specific place where you’re from, and about the people who live there; about how the air smells in certain seasons, what the weather is like, how the natives are, how they talk and think about the neighboring towns, for example.”
Will you elaborate on how the comparison to other iconic writers resonates in the quote about specificity of place?
AC: Well, I think that in the work of the writers you mentioned, place is fundamental to understanding the story they are telling. When I say ‘place’ I mean the landscape, but also the culture and the time period. This is of course very important in the works of Toni Morrison. Steinbeck writes of struggling migrant workers in The Grapes of Wrath; he is able to capture the pain and humiliation of a particular kind of labor, while also showing its rewards. That is a very difficult and at the same time very necessary thing to show: how being embedded in a kind of landscape, a kind of labor, a kind of life, can provoke contradictory emotions. In Marilynne Robinson’s work—I’m thinking primarily of Housekeeping—she uses landscape to illustrate the girl’s, Ruth’s, interiority; she, Robinson, uses the landscape to spin and reveal a complex philosophy. The more a person knows about a place and experience within the place, the better able she is to use those depths of knowledge for effect. Without that knowledge, work comes off as flat, shallow. To write something meaningful, you have to engage with the landscape, with how things are; you have to move beyond the surface, recognize the details and let them ignite an atmosphere around you.
MAK: Tell us a bit about the eight years it took you to write The Orchardist.
AC: I started the novel while in graduate school at the University of Minnesota. It was a great time to begin a project because I was supported both financially and community-wise. I think any artistic project, but especially in the beginning, requires a lot of time, solitude, and freedom to really stretch out and make a lot of mistakes if necessary. I felt I could do that in grad school. By the time I left the program, I felt I had a solid foundation under me in terms of what I wanted to do with the project; I had conceived it, and needed only (!) to flesh it out. That took a long time, but I had confidence. I don’t think people understand what goes into fueling that kind of confidence, which isn’t arrogance (or I hope it isn’t) but is rather a clarity of vision. After grad school I was able to get adjunct teaching jobs when I needed them, teaching creative writing and composition. Once, at a dental college in a suburb of the Cities, I taught study skills and speech. When the recession hit, however, a lot of those positions that I had depended on were no longer available due to hiring freezes. I did some freelance work, writing company newsletters and editing manuscripts. For a while I was a barista at a coffee cart in a hospital. Also during this time I received residencies that supported me, the most significant being a 7-month long residency from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Whenever I had support like this, I wrote as intensely as I could, to prepare for the time when I had to find outside work again.
MAK: On the up side, you sold this debut novel to Harper Collins in practically no time! You come across as a person who is quite disciplined. How about your writing process—controlled or haphazard?
AC: I think my writing process is neither controlled nor haphazard. I only work when I want to, and that just happens to be all the time. I have great bursts of composition, and between these I'm constantly reading work that fuels the book I'm writing, and taking notes, and walking around absorbed in the project at hand. Writing a novel for me is an all-consuming occupation. There is no stepping away from it, for better or for worse. "Obsessive" is probably a better descriptor than "disciplined."
MAK: What do you do when you are not writing?
AC: I read, I write, I write letters, I cook food, I take long walks in the city. I watch movies, I meet friends.
MAK: Are you currently working on something new?
AC: Right now I'm reading a lot, refueling, taking notes, searching around. I have a few ideas for projects but they are premature.
Amanda Coplin was born in Wenatchee, Washington. She received her BA from the University of Oregon and MFA from the University of Minnesota. A recipient of residencies from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and the Omi International Arts Center at Ledig House in Ghent, New York, she lives in Portland, Oregon.
Author photograph: © Corina Bernstein